by CIO Staff

IT in War and Peace: New Zealand Defense Force’s IS Systems Rival Corporate IT Systems

Dec 22, 20064 mins
ComplianceData Center

By Stephen Bell

Derek Locke arguably runs the most complex IT organization in the country, and one with a redoubtable mission for the next five years: “To provide New Zealand Defence Force the technology, infrastructure and decision support capability to access and share information, 24 hours a day, seven days a week anywhere in the world to achieve the best military output possible.”

As such, the NZDF’s IS systems could rival that–or are even bigger–than a multinational conglomerate.

Apart from military operations that include warfare, peace support, communications information systems and supply chain, NZDF is also involved in at least three other “businesses”–transport (including passenger airline, freight, maritime), engineering (including bridges and roads, aircraft, civil electronics) and people.

“We have emergency services, fire stations, fire trucks, medical treatment centres, rehab centers, physiotherapists and qualified PT instructors. We have our police force, our own jails and judges,” says Locke. Even just the NZ-based operation runs 700 servers and 14,800 desktops. The 300 staff under Locke can be working on up to 140 projects simultaneously.

NZDF supports a number of missions overseas at any one time, all of them needing constant information and intercommunication as the very basis of their activities. NZDF’s IT systems supported 800 New Zealand personnel on overseas assignments last year, some of them in what Locke euphemistically calls “not very nice places.”

Bandwidth is often severely limited; “We’re only just beginning to get into broadband,” he says–and satellite communication is chancy and costly. “I’m sure we’ve all got our telecommunications stories,” says Locke. “But these problems compound if you’re working overseas” and particularly if you are working in a country which lacks a “Western” standard of infrastructure, as well as facing inhospitable terrain and hostile populations.

By using open standards, the NZDF does its best to accommodate to what it’s likely to find in its theaters of operation. It exchanges a lot of technical networking know-how with allied forces such as the Australians, Canadians, British and Americans.

“Some people talk about their complex networks; we have more than 15 network layers. Some have very few people on, but others can have up to 14,000 people on them,” says Locke. The layers include 10 separate voice networks and three video layers.

Network domains in a war situation have to be able to pass information to one another with sub-second response times.

PC equipment too suffers from the harsh environments; in the desert of Afghanistan, even a “ruggedized” PC, designed for military operation, will typically last only a year.

Wireless would seem an obvious solution for such environments, but its use is restricted, owing largely to security concerns as well as unfriendly terrain. “We can do wireless within a building or a ship, but we don’t use it more widely than that.”

Security is, naturally, paramount, with a few specific terminals allocated to Internet communication and the rest kept isolated or on private networks. Devices such as “multi-function” scanners/copiers/printers have to have some of their “smart” features stripped out to prevent information leakage. Otherwise, though, NZDF uses a lot of Microsoft applications, with SAP for financials.

The Defence Force fights what has been called the “three-block war” acting in small local areas and on as many as three fronts–warfare, peacekeeping and aid-agency support.

On top of all these, there is transport to be organized and the normal “back-office” applications such as financials and vehicle maintenance. A military base is like a self-contained town with its own hospitals and even its own police, and all these have to have their own applications and networks, says Locke.

The NZDF has its own research arm, the Defence Technology Agency, but expertise and knowledge run deep in the organisation. Almost all officers have the rank of lieutenant-colonel and above, with a growing number having at least a masters’ degree in an appropriate discipline.

“It’s all very well having the technical bits together, but what you really want is the right information in the right place,” says Locke. The days of a centralized “Records Office” are past; much essential information now is on individual hard drives. There is a push to centralize and consolidate data, to have centralized delivery of applications to all parts of the network, meaning versions of software are consistent and regularly updated. Centralized back-up and recovery of data must function reliably.

More consolidation is needed overall, says Locke; there is still a lot of separate functioning under the three branches of the force. This is an imperative, for, as Locke as says, “We have to be prepared for the worst possible eventuality.”

This article first appeared in CIO New Zealand.